The Britain we knew is gone forever

The following is based partly on an article in the Financial Times:

On July 20th Martin Wolf, wrote in the Financial Times:  “No one knows what kind of Britain will emerge from the “Brexit earthquake”, but my increasingly clear conviction is that the outcome will be ugly and the damage long-term. “The UK that “the world thought it knew – stable, pragmatic and respected – is gone, probably forever. Failing to agree a smooth Brexit due to fears over the Irish backstop is a national folly – since that backstop only prevents Britain from making trade deals that are either “less important than maintaining good relations with the EU”, “probably unavailable” (China and India) or “abusive” (the US)”.

My comment: We now face the prospect of an un-thought-out, no-deal Brexit, multiple constitutional crises, the suspension of Parliament for a record five weeks (preventing Parliament from taking action to avoid crashing out of the EU), and the probable break-up of the UK. We also we have the prospect of the most divisive general election ever,  a choice between the irresponsible fantasist, Boris Johnson,  and Jeremy Corbyn, arguably the worst Labour Party leader ever.  As Martin Wolf comments: “Can Britain really be this lost, dithering between Ayn Rand and Leon Trotsky? What’s happening is not worthy of a serious country. The conclusion? We no longer are one”.

P.S  The Queen agreed to a five week suspension of Parliament.  One assumes she took the best advice and had no choice but to agree.  If so, the rules need a big change.  This executive coup makes a mockery of Parliamentary government, and is reminiscent of the treatment King Charles I dealt out to Parliament in the 17th Century, a disaster at the time, leading to civil war.  But the long- term effect was to reduce the power of the monarchy and make Parliament supreme.  When did the Constitution change, allowing this unelected bighead with dictatorial leanings, to steal the power from the elected parliament?  Britain needs to return power to elected representatives.  Pronto!

Ataraxia! Where are you now we need you more than ever?

“Let us bring in the workers we need to succeed”

The London “Evening Standard” is hardly a left-wing publication.  On most issues it backs the Tory views.  However, back on July 17th they publicised a plea to the government to “let us bring in the workers we need to succeed”.  It was issued by a consortium of business groups representing thousands of companies.  They are worried that skilled foreign workers will return home after Brexit.

As it is, there is a serious shortage of specialist workers.  What the companies want is the extension of temporary visas to 2 years, reforms to let firms sponsor more overseas recruits, and 2 year visas for new international graduates.  At the moment you can only bring in foreign workers if they are paid £30,000 or more.  The retail sector alone relies on 170,000 EU nationals, presumably most earning less than £30,000.  These people could be sent home after Brexit, the result being chaos.

But wait a moment –  the Brexiteers want to dispense with the services of all East Europeans, skilled or not.   Brits are no longer taught electrics, carpentry, plumbing, bricklaying or any other essential manual skills in what used to be called “technical colleges”.  These colleges renamed themselves universities and their technical expertise seems to have declined.  So we now absolutely rely on East Europeans to keep our houses upright and the rain out.  Wait till the rich brexiteer Tories cannot get anyone capable of repairing their houses, let alone serving in high street shops!  Many poorer people will rejoice at the new vacant job opportunities, but the mood of customers will sour when the rain comes through the roof.  Be careful what you wish for!


Killing wild animals

The Trump administration last week reauthorised the use of controversial poison-filled traps to kill wild animals, such as coyotes and foxes, that prey on livestock, despite strong opposition from environmentalists. The spring-loaded devices, dubbed “cyanide bombs”, eject a capsule containing sodium cyanide. The Wildlife Services’ use of the traps, which last year killed 6,500 animals, more than 200 of which were unintended targets, was being reassessed after a teenage boy was injured and his pet dog killed by one in 2017.

On Monday, in a move lauded by industry, the government also announced changes to the way the Endangered Species Act is implemented, weakening protections for threatened species and allowing, for the first time, “economic impact” of factors such as lost revenue when deciding if a species warrants protection.(The Week, 18 Aug 2019).

The concept of sharing seems to be alien to the current regime in Washington DC.  We share the planet with a host of other creatures, most of whom, if they are not already on the endangered list, soon will be. They all play their part in the ecology of the Earth, and pose very little risk, if any,  to humans.  We are, or should be, custodians of this corner of the universe.  But no, anything that affects the ability of business to make increased profits is being scrapped.  Which is curious, because I always thought conservative government was about creating a level playing field and ensuring a fair deal for all living creatures.  But that was the old Republican party, which was cautiously conservative, but, as I saw it at the time, cooperative and honorable, Nixon apart.  Now we have people in power for whom money is god, and who care for nothing except the magical bank balance. What empty people they must be!

Evangelicals for Trump

For ten years of my early life I went to compulsory chapel every day of the week while at school.  This is what I learned about Christianity, as preached buy the moderate Church of England:

Christianity means love your neighbour, forgive your enemies, help the old, the hurt and the sick, be unkind to no one, be loyal to your family and friends; do not be greedy; do not tell lies, be thankful to those who provide for you; never betray your friends or your country; treat people of different backgrounds, colours and faiths as equals; support the rights of women and minorities  to live the way they want to, undirected by anyone else. Be polite and thoughtful of others  Oh… and do no harm. (have I missed anything?)

The British evangelicals I know are very good people who would probably agree with my above list, but add evangelising.   Why is it that we hear no mention of the above Christian teachings from American evangelicals? They seem to be preoccupied with sex (don’t do it), politics (divisive), immigration( ban it) and getting to heaven (really?). The question is: Do they understand christianity at all?

Evangelical leaders and anti-abortion groups are now ramping up their efforts to reelect President Trump.  The Faith and Freedom Coalition (FFC) will spend tens of millions of dollars on a voter mobilization effort that aims to register 1 million Christians in key battleground states and reach 30 million people nationwide.

American evangelicals are told to attract people to Christ, to convince them, to witness to them, to speak the truth in a way that invites strangers in, welcomes them, makes them feel loved.  But what are they welcoming newcomers into?  A caring, loving social movement, devoted to caring for all Americans and righting wrongs?  Or are they in reality a political party- cum-lobbying group that is very white and very resentful, and whose resentment has been caused by the very right- wing national policies they support.  Baffling, isn’t it?


Ideologies of the extreme Right


White replacement theory is said to be the driver behind much of the gun violence in America. It claims that white people will be systematically replaced by black and brown migrants, and comprises two sub-conspiracies:

  • the so-called “great replacement theory”, originating in France: western identity is under siege by massive waves of immigration, mainly from the Middle East and Africa, which is going to alter the culture and demographics of the West forever.  Followers believe racial mixing weakens the fabric of society and is an imminent threat to the stability of majority-white , western nations.   Others in this belief system believe in a shadowy Jewish group that aims to rule the world and wants a homogenous society they can control.
  • “the white genocide conspiracy” comes from the US and originated in the Reconstruction era, after the abolition of slavery. It claimed that the US was on the brink of a “race war” in which the former slaves would rise up and kill their former masters.  Strange though this now seems to us, this theory is merging with the “great replacement“ theory online, and focuses these days on migrants from south of the border,  purporting to be a call to arms to protect the white race.  Many of the 250 mass shootings in 2019 were rooted in this idea, mainly espoused by young, white men.  (synopsis of an article in Guardian Weekly, 9 August 2019)

With climate change you can be sure that the migrations will gather pace, along with sympathy for the white replacement theory. At the moment it attracts people of low IQ, poor, badly educated and often unable to find work.  Trump, an expert in resentment politics is making it sound “respectable”. Apparently, no amount of harassment and cruelty towards innocent Latino children crossing the border, for instance, is enough for his base.

Global wealth

Imagine lining up all the riches in the world and distributing them evenly to adults across the globe. Every adult on Earth would end up with $63,100, according to the 2018 Global Wealth Report from the Swiss bank Credit Suisse. The figure puts global adult average wealth at a record high.

But, of course, our world’s riches aren’t distributed evenly. The boom in global wealth over recent years has lined the pockets of the already rich, particularly those with fortunes worth at least $50 million. The ranks of these “ultra-high net worth” individuals have quadrupled since our new millennium began.  (Chuck Collins, for the Institute for Policy Studies team).

Climate change is already causing political upheaval and mass migration.  Massive amounts of public money will be needed to help the hungry and displaced, if violence is not to grow.  The super-rich have fixed the system so that they pay minimal tax, but do “contribute “ to the expenses of politicians everywhere, and thus have huge political power.  We can expect them to continue to shrug their shoulders.  Anyone who has studied history knows that this is unsustainable and will end in tears.  Stupid? yes.


Alexander McCall Smith on teachers and the taught

“Below are comments from the writer, Alexander McCall Smith, in his article in the June 2015 edition of “Prospect” magazine, the British magazine designed for those who think and who have a sense of humour, under the title “If I ruled the World”.

“Teachers too would have their authority returned to them. Children would be taught grammar, and in particular encouraged to use the accusative properly and to put verbs in their sentences, where possible. They would be told what a verb is. They would be taught not to use the word “like” every 10 seconds. They would be taught not to run alltheirwordstogether. This would mean that when they got jobs announcing flights at airports people would be able to understand what they were saying.

“Epicurus would probably agree that the “What the hell – let them speak the language any way they like” gang who have dominated education in the English-speaking world since baby-boomers were invented, should, like, be pensioned off and our language restored to what it used to be – the universally understood and agreed way of communicating and which created a vibrant community.”

The above post first appeared on the blog in 2015, and is the most visited posting in five years. It clearly resonated with the readership, who have difficulty, for instance, following actors who gabble, like, on the stage and TV and mangle English, and particularly Shakespeare – one of many modern challenges.  Mind you, the people who are really into philosophy are often no better.  Why is it that in trying to communicate philosophical ideas they have to use inaccessible language and come across so humourless?   I suppose they think it adds something, a je ne sais qua, to their reputation. Well, no, actually.  What is the point of philosophy if it is written in bad English and is not easily understood?  “Get thee gone, varmint!” (from somewhere in Shakespeare.  I’ve forgotten).

The threats to Greenland

We concentrate on the obvious places where dictators thrive and warfare kills thousands, but tend not to note the stress experienced by the people of Greenland, who are struggling to cope with global warming, which is totally altering their way of life.  More than 90% of Greenlanders accept that the climate is changing, while 76% are experiencing dangerous sea ice journeys and having to euthanise sled dogs that they cannot keep owing to the shorter winters.  As a result of the stress there is a high level of alcoholism and suicide. The mental health of the Inuit population is causing serious concern to mental health professionals, who are finding symptoms of anxiety, ecological grief and even post-traumatic stress owing to the rapid changes in their lives.

Then along comes Trump, proposing to “buy” Greenland in order to give his election donors the chance to mine the place for coal, oil etc. etc. and make matters hugely worse. Praise the God of Money, money, money!  

Trump would hardly be concerned about the stress already being experienced by the Greenlanders, were he to succeed in buying Greenland because the global warming crisis is “fake news”, is it not?

(This bullying by Trump should be a joke …..but no, it is not. Picking this ludicrous and unnecessary fight with harmless Denmark is not the behavior of a normal person.  Is it psychopathic ?  It is certainly irrational,  but I suppose there is, for his supporters, a rationale somewhere in the Old Testament.  So that’s o.k).  

We will all pay for this

Letter from James Marriott, published in The Times,  London, 17 August 2019

“I don’t own a home,  and like many people in their 20s I suspect I never will. The proportion of 25- to 34-year-olds who own a house has collapsed over the past 20 years, from 55% to 34%. Getting on the property ladder is famously hard in London, but the problem isn’t limited to the capital. In Greater Manchester, home ownership among that age group fell from 53% in 1984 to 26% in 2017; in South Yorkshire, it fell from 54% to 25% over the same period.

“The idea of never having a place to call one’s own, and always having to pay exorbitant rent, is “depressing” for millennials like me. But this trend also promises to have dire consequences for society as a whole. It’s no coincidence that the birth rate in England and Wales is at a record low. “Young people paying over the odds to live in grubby shared houses are understandably reluctant to start families.” Nor is it any wonder that many of them feel politically alienated as a result. It’s not a healthy or sustainable situation. Pity Generation Rent. “But remember their problems are yours too.” 

On top of that many are working on short-term contracts, with no job security.  They either have no work pensions, or, if they do they are bitty, small and inadequate.  Yes, they (some or most of them) will be inheriting houses, and, presumably some capital from their parents, but by then it could be too late to have children.  Most of my friends, by around 28, were married, had at least small apartments of their own, a mortgage and a first child (a generalisation. of course).  This modern situation is a sign of political incompetence, total lack of forethought, and the overweening power of the modern capitalist system.  Life really is stacked against the younger generation, and I for one can’t blame them for disillusionment.  Some might comment that a smaller population is a good thing for the planet, but along with it comes political instability, no good thing for a calm, peaceful, fulfilling life. First off – build nice, affordable apartments, targeting young buyers.


Just so you know

On August 10th I did a posting on the effect of suncream on reefs and marine life…..

From the New Scientist:

In the past five months, the US body that regulates sunscreens as over-the-counter drugs, has declared that 12 active ingredients used in these products might not be safe. Four of these ingredients enter the bloodstream through the skin.  None of the commonly used ingredients have been decidedly declared unsafe, but questions hang over them.

In most countries, sunscreens are classified as cosmetic products. In the European Union, they are subject to rules on which ingredients can be used, and must pass tests for skin and eye irritation, for example.   But in the US sunscreens, including cosmetics marketed with a sun protection factor, are now regulated by the FDA like drugs, years after initial introduction in the 1920s. because they make specific claims to reduce the chances of sunburn, skin ageing and skin cancers.

Take oxybenzone, for example, which is widely used in sunscreens. In 2008, the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention found traces of it in the urine of 97% of the 2500 people it tested. Other studies have found the chemical in breast milk.  It is thought that  oxybenzone might be a hormone disruptor, and act as a very weak oestrogen (so far unsubstantiated).

The FDA issued new proposed rules in February this year, saying that only two of the original 16 “safe” ingredients can actually be considered safe and effective: zinc oxide and titanium dioxide. Of the remaining ingredients, two will be banned, while the rest, including oxybenzone, have big question marks over them. In recent studies, where four such ingredients were tested  (four times a day on the skin, for four days), not only did all four chemicals turn up in the blood, they did so at levels that demand further research to make sure they aren’t causing cancer.  Meanwhile, it was found that. sunscreen was absorbed after the first application and that it persists for days..

The fact is that there is a real lack of information on what the consequences of slathering on suncream are.  Back in the 70s, everyone thought that what you put on the skin stayed there. No one imagined that they  could be absorbed by the skin.

Concerns are now being raised about the chemicals in cosmetics too. They face little regulation in the US and have had the same level of scrutiny as sunscreen in the EU. This means that few studies have been done about which chemicals in cosmetics, if any, can enter the bloodstream and what their effects may be.

Part of the problem comes from complaints falling through the cracks. If someone in the US complains of an adverse drug effect to its manufacturer, then the company has to report it to the FDA. But this isn’t the case for cosmetics. This means that issues can go unnoticed. Notwithstanding this, between 2004 and 2016, “only” 5144 adverse events were reported to the FDA (seems quite a lot to me.  Ed.)   (edited version of a long article in  New Scientist, August 2019)

Kashmir: what happened

Indian-administered Kashmir remains under an unprecedented lockdown, subject to a curfew and without phone and internet links. It followed the announcement that India’s only Muslim-majority state would lose its autonomous status. Article 370 of India’s constitution, in force since 1949, guaranteed Jammu and Kashmir the right to make its own laws in all internal matters, and denied property rights to non-residents. It was revoked by Narendra Modi’s Hindu right-wing nationalist BJP government. The legislative assembly, which should have approved the move, was suspended last year.

Pakistan’s Prime Minister Imran Khan accused India of “ethnic cleansing” in Kashmir, and his government asked for an emergency meeting of the UN Security Council to discuss the crisis.

Why is this event of interest to those who subscribe to the teachings of Epicurus?  One has to go back for context to Indian independence.  The first prime minister, Nehru, was born in Kashmir, which logically should have been awarded to Pakistan.  But Nehru was determined to have his birthplace part of India.  Thus began decades of wars and  mutual hostility.  Since 1947, the disputed Moslem territory has sparked three wars between India and Pakistan as well as a bloody 30-year insurgency. The Kashmiris now fear an influx of Hindu Indians, and will now be more susceptible to recruitment by Muslim insurgents backed by Pakistan,  increasing the risk of military escalation – which between two nuclear-armed states is a frightening prospect. 

All around the world, populist leaders are launching similar attacks on the rule of law and democracy (where it exists at all) based on deliberate misinformation, lies and the manipulation of votes and legal systems.  It has taken centuries to establish forms of democracy, popular controls over the power-crazy, and the idea of a free Press, reporting fairly. All this now being undone.  It will pass, but what will be left we have no idea.  Not good for Epicurean peace of mind. (adapted and re-edited from an article in The Week, 17 August 2019)

The return of federal executions

“Anyone who has witnessed the steady rise of Trump, with the thumbs-up, thumbs-down swagger of an omnipotent Roman emperor,” knew this day was coming.  Attorney General William Barr has just announced the end of the Justice Department’s unofficial, 16-year-long moratorium on executing federal prisoners. The department plans to put five inmates to death in December and January. Barr selected the first candidates carefully, to blunt the complaints of critics: three of the five inmates are white, and “each committed one of the most heinous crimes one could imagine, the murder of children”.

But that doesn’t change the fact that capital punishment has been proved to be racially discriminatory and can lead to the innocent being executed. In recent decades, 166 death row inmates have been exonerated by DNA testing or other evidence. Most developed nations abandoned this barbaric practice long ago, and even the US states that carry out the bulk of executions in America have “sharply reduced” their use of the death penalty in recent years. So why bring back federal executions now? As is so often the case with our Caligula-like president, “the cruelty is the point”. It thrills his base.  (Will Bunch, The Philadelphia Inquirer, re- published in The Week, 10 August 2019)

This is a moral and philosophical issue.  Surely there has been quite enough discussion and research about the death penalty over many years. Revenge killing-by-society is immoral, and, in some Southern States, often with suspected racial overtones. It is also useless as a deterrent.  Murderers don’t not murder because they might  be executed for it; it never occurs to them that they will be caught, and, in any case, murders are typically carried out in a moment of rage, or by people who are mentally deranged. All too frequently the accused turn out to be simple-minded, inarticulate, but innocent.  But these objections carry no weight, it appears, with the self-described christian followers of Trump, who get riled up about abortion but are happy to see adults executed, even when innocent. But then who now expects consistency?

It’s time to stand up to “flying rats” a.k.a Seagulls

Letter to The Sun:

Vicious seagulls are taking over our country.  The decline of the fishing industry has left less food for these feathered menaces to scavenge from the docks, so tens of thousands of them have taken up residence in inland towns and cities. And they aren’t just poking through rubbish bins. These “flying rats”, some of which grow to a huge size, have been dive-bombing families, biting toddlers and attacking pets. In 2015, gulls pecked a Yorkshire terrier to death in Cornwall, and one was recently reported to have carried off a chihuahua from a woman’s garden in Devon.

As a city councillor in Worcester – which is fully 40 miles from the sea – I am inundated with frightened parishioners telling tales of aggressive birds pecking at them whenever they venture into the garden. Residents and tourists are avoiding eating in outdoor cafés, and business owners are complaining about coming to work to find their shops “blanketed in white droppings”. There’s only one answer to the gull problem: “We must kill the bloody things.” As a nation of animal lovers, we may baulk at the idea of a cull, but something must be done.  (Alan Amos,The Sun, 10 August 2019)

Years ago my wife and I visited Brighton, which is on the South coast of England.  We were sitting in the open air, harmlessly having lunch, when a huge seagull swooped down upon our table. Wings outspread, it must have been over two feet across, wingtip to wingtip.  It had a nasty, disdainful look in its eye, was totally unafraid and was armed with a fearsome beak.  It seized my egg and tomato sandwich, its contents spilling out on nearby sightseers as it fearlessly flapped away.  Moral: don’t eat outside by the seaside, or, if you do, don’t choose bacon, egg and tomato sandwiches.

P.S  This seagull crisis is clearly the fault of the EU.  Once Britain has crashed out of the EU seagulls will obviously confine their activities to France.

The British political system is bankrupt (and in good company)

The Queen, who by tradition does not comment on politics, is quoted as saying that the political class is incapable of governing.  Amen to that.

Robert Unger, a philosopher at Harvard, says that European politicians don’t know how to do anything apart from splitting the difference, and are incapable of facing up to fundamental problems.  This leaves an opening to nationalist populists, who know even less and have nothing to offer that is constructive, but know which resentment buttons to push.

Unger wants a radical transfer of power and money to people and places far from Westminster, so that they can try their own social and economic experiments, in contrast to the current busted economic and governing model. He believes this would revivify national politics. Centralisation has been a massive failure.

At the moment the UK is in existential crisis (per Michel Barnier). The institutions, the economy and the system of representation are being shown up to be no longer fit for their tasks.   During the recent election the two main parties each took less than a quarter of all the potential votes (you wouldn’t know it listening to the business-as-usual speeches of the Prime Minister).  Old codgers continue to vote for business as usual, and, of course, Brexit, the results of which they arguably won’t live long enough to endure.

London-centric politicians starve the provinces of cash and sit on anything that smells of political imagination.  Disabled people, for instance, are apparently of no interest to the government. They are left hungry, housebound and ignored. There are few people who are capable of re-imagining what the state and the economy are for.  Instead the country is stuck in old battles over who gets what subsidies and which clique runs everything.  Nothing is forthcoming from the Labour Party, run by a man stuck firmly in the socialist mind-frame of the 1950s.  You can get by with the tired approach to governing while most people are getting richer, but after a decade of no wage growth and benefits going to the 1%, things will get even more toxic unless we clear out the two irrelevant main political parties and see what ideas the local yokels can make work. (sparked off by a Guardian article on 7 June 2019)

Followers of Epicurus are not supposed to get involved, or take a particular interest, in politics.  But we face an existential crisis, even the break-up of the “United” Kingdom.  This cannot be ignored by responsible and thoughtful people.  Devolution of power seems a sensible answer to at least some of the problems, if you can get citizens actually motivated and involved.

And now the Prime Minister wants to prorogue (i.e suspend) Parliament so that he can ram through a No-deal Brexit.  How does that distinguish him from any other run-of-the-mill petty autocrat?  And in case I am criticized for being too political, I have five grandchildren and want the peace of mind of knowing that their lives are is going to be at least as happy and secure as mine.


Good news, we hope: a new approach to cancer

From The Guardian:

Scientists have opened up a new front in the war against cancer, aimed not so much at curing the disease as disarming it, so that it becomes a “manageable” condition. Just as bacteria can become resistant to antibiotics, cancers can mutate to become resistant to the drugs used to treat them, which is why when cancer metastasises (reappearing elsewhere in the body in an advanced form), it is so often fatal.

Conventional cancer treatments are based on a “shock and awe” principle of killing as many cancerous cells as possible. Researchers working at a new centre being built by the Institute of Cancer Research (ICR) are focusing on developing new drugs that can be given alongside conventional treatments, and which are aimed not at killing the cancer, but at stopping its evolution into a resistant form. “What we’re really looking at here is a culture change – among cancer researchers and clinicians, and also among patients,” Professor Paul Workman, chief executive of the ICR, is quoted as saying. “We will always strive to cure cancer, but in advanced disease where that may not be possible, an evolutionary approach opens up the prospect of long- term control with a good quality of life.” 

My comment:  My father, grandfather and great-grandfather all died of cancer.  As someone who has had one serious cancer condition that involved surgery, and a second threatened one that was caught in time before it developed, I share with millions of others the fear experienced when the doctor talks about the subject.   If some of that fear is eliminated this will be good news for scores of patients.

Drug deaths in the US and some unintended consequences. No. 2

Well-intentioned policies can have unintended consequences. For example, while the rate of new opioid prescriptions has fallen in recent years, a large number of physicians have stopped initiating opioids altogether.  While that may sound like a good thing, it’s not clear whether this does more good or harm to patients in severe pain.

This isn’t the first time the rate of opioid deaths has slowed for a year. They appeared to stall in 2011 and 2012, but the death rate then shot back up as fentanyl made its way into the US.  Fentanyl deaths in 2018 continued to rise, but grew at a slower rate than the past several years. So, it’s right to be only cautiously optimistic when it comes to a possible break in the wave of opioid-related deaths.(The new numbers are still being finalised, and may increase when the final CDC report is published later this year. They also do not include deaths related to infection from intravenous drug use.)

Furthermore, renewed attempts to overturn President Obama’s Affordable Care Act are currently underway. Should these succeed, many people who currently receive legal pain relief may end up turning to illegal drugs if they lose their health insurance. Celebrating the end of the opioid epidemic is premature. (An edited version by Chelsea Whyte in the New Scientist , Aug 2019).

In our local pharmacy they informally stopped dispensing opioids months ago and tell you to go elsewhere, even if you have a legitimate prescription, written to deal with pain after an operation.  This not just because of the dependency and deaths they cause but because pharmacies which dispense these disastrous drugs can get physically raided by gangs or desperate addicts, and the place wrecked if the pharmacy is known to stock them. (I hasten to say that this could be just a local decision, not necessarily countrywide)

The family reputed to profit most from opioids, and which is famously generous in giving to the arts, is, as far as I know, still out and about and unrepentant. Of course, their profitable market is now being reduced by the sales of fentanyl.

Drug deaths in the US, No. 1

For the first time since 1990, the number of annual drug overdose deaths in the US has declined. The 5 per cent fall reported by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) is almost entirely due to a drop in deaths from prescription opioid painkillers. Does this mean the opioid crisis has peaked?

The early data predicts that there were 68,500 drug overdose deaths in the US in 2018, down from 72,000 the previous year. But it is unknown whether overdose deaths will continue to fall.  The CDC data shows that overdose deaths from fentanyl, synthetic opioids, cocaine and methamphetamines are still increasing, which is an ominous sign.

Drug overdose deaths in the US related to prescription opioids rose from just over 3,400 in 1999 to about 17,000 in 2017. This dramatic upwards trend reflects a nation-wide epidemic of opioid use and abuse. Recent data from the US Drug Enforcement Agency revealed that between 2006 and 2012, 76 billion oxycodone and hydrocodone pain pills – two common prescription opioids – were distributed in the US. That’s about 248 pills per person!

The epidemic has hit US states differently, and these new numbers bear that out. Deaths continued to rise in some eastern states where the use of illicit fentanyl, a highly potent synthetic opioid, is spreading. But deaths are dropping in some midwestern states where local governments have expanded treatments for addiction and monitoring of prescriptions.

Even with this recent reduction in overdoses, tens of thousands of people are overdosing on opioids each year. The recent decrease may be due to increased availability of naloxone – which blocks the effects of opioids and is used by emergency medical practitioners to reverse an overdose – and better training to use it.

If emergency treatment, rather than reduced drug use, is largely behind the fall, this would mean an increasing number of US adults are living with substance abuse disorders. Prescribing restrictions mean many of these are likely being pushed towards using street drugs.  (an edited version of an article by Chelsea Whyte, New Scientist. Aug 2019)

However you look at it 68,500 drug overdose deaths (in 2018) are tragedies as well as a scandal.  If this number were lost to physical violence it would be called a war. I sympathise with those in constant pain, but knowingly pushing or enabling the use of habit-forming drugs should be classed a crime.  Writing as someone in constant mild back pain, my personal prescription is exercise and physical therapy with a very occasional ibuprofen to reduce swelling.  Live with it.  It’s part of getting older (or, at least, that’s my philosophy, Epicurean or not).

Sunscreen toxic for reefs

Toxic for reefs

As of January next year, visitors to Palau, an island country in the western Pacific, will be prohibited from buying or using a range of sunscreens. The country has classified products containing any of 10 commonly used sun filters and preservatives as “reef-toxic”, as they are thought to harm coral reefs. Other places have followed suit, and similar bans will come into effect in 2021 in Hawaii and in Key West, Florida.

Craig Downs at Haereticus Environmental Laboratory in Virginia and his colleagues ran laboratory experiments to assess the problem. They found that immature corals exposed to oxybenzone, an ingredient that is commonly used in sunscreens, die.

The corals became deformed and pale in colour, and were unable to eat, as depicted in the images above. “Their mouths just opened, and it looked like a horror movie scream,” says Downs. “They were as good as dead in the first 8 hours.”

Sunscreen manufacturers have said that lab-based experiments can’t tell us what happens in the real world, but more bans are likely. “We have one reef, and we have to do one small thing to protect that,” Teri Johnston, mayor of Key West, was quoted as saying before the city’s vote on sunscreen. “It’s our obligation.”.  (Jessica Hamzelou, New Scientist Aug 2019)

But if you don’t use sunscreen you can get cancer.  Damned if you do, damned if you don’t.  And the warming oceans are destroying the reefs in any case.

Tomorrow: problems for humans using sunscreens. And then I will try to find something cheering to talk about!


A hard border is simply unworkable

The Guardian, on 7 August,  ran an interesting article on the “border” between Northern Ireland and the Irish Republic. The hard border is not currently there because of the terms of the Good Friday agreement, underpinned by the fact that both the UK and Ireland are EU states. If Britain leaves the EU with no deal, there will be an international border between two entities with disparate health regulations, tax schemes and immigration policies, meaning it will need to be fortified once more.

The writer, Séamas O’Reilly, points out that, after the Good Friday agreement, the old customs checkpoint at the end of his garden was sold so that a large family home could be built in its place. The couple who live there might object to having a customs outpost erected in their bedroom. The building immediately next door is in the Republic of Ireland, and was formerly the Irish customs post. It’s now a kickboxing gym.

There are 300 miles (482km) of border like this, built on and now privately owned, with family homes, petrol stations, cow sheds and kickboxing gyms.  To re-erect a hard border across Northern Ireland would be the most expensive and logistically arduous engineering, staffing and planning job in UK or Irish history. It would take a great deal more than 85 days and £2.1 billion. And even if it were undertaken it would still be a bad idea, even if it promised a massively improved economy and huge social improvements.  In other words, a hard border in Ireland is simply unworkable.

But for Brexiteers there has to be a barrier between the two parts of Ireland, otherwise the much- resented East Europeans and others can get unimpeded access to Britain via Ireland, making the whole idea of Brexit and “control of our own borders” moot.

The only intelligent option for the extremist Brexiteers is to throw up their hands, abandon the Protestant majority in the North (rapidly becoming a minority anyway), and do what should have been done decades ago – declare a united Ireland. This is about as likely as the Republicans in the US agreeing to civilised gun laws. Which illustrates the fact that the Brexiteers never paused to think about the detail of what they were doing.  I dare say none of them have ever been and looked at the old border between the Republic and Ulster (P.S: I have).